A taxpayer-funded sexuality program that instructs 11-year-olds to role-play gay teenagers has been accused of crossing the line between education and advocacy in the classroom.
The controversial Safe Schools Coalition program, which teaches high school students in years 7 and 8 about sexual diversity and inclusion, is pitting religious groups against gay rights advocates.
Ostensibly an anti-bullying program, it takes a politically correct approach to sex education. Teachers are told it is “heterosexist’’ to refer to students as “girls and boys”. Prepubescent children are taught the meaning of terms such as “queer’’, “pansexual’’, “sister girl’’ and “trans guy’’.
Nearly 500 of Australia’s schools are using the program and Victoria has ordered all government schools to sign on by 2019.
The program’s teaching guide, All of Us, includes a role-playing lesson plan in which kids as young as 11 are told to imagine they are 16 and going out with “someone they are really into’’.
Half the students pretend they are with someone of the same sex; the others have a partner of the opposite sex. Students have to answer 10 questions including: “When you go out with a group of friends to the movies, would you feel comfortable giving your partner a hug or a kiss?’’ They also need to name four famous Australians “with the same kind of relationship as you’’.
Children are even asked to imagine losing their genitalia, in a lesson on transgender experiences. “Indicate to your students that you are talking about gender and not sex by asking them to consider what makes them female or male,’’ the teaching manual says. “Most students will mention their genitalia. Extend the discussion by asking students what it would mean in terms of their gender if they were to lose that part of themselves.’’
The manual tells children to ask people if they prefer to be known as he, she, ze or they. It states that referring to “boys and girls’’ is a form of “heterosexism’’, which assumes that everyone is, or should be, heterosexual.
“Phrases like ‘ladies and gentlemen’ or ‘boys and girls’ should be avoided,’’ it says.
The Safe Schools Coalition also promotes a book for children as young as four, The Gender Fairy, which author Jo Hirst explains is “about two transgender children who are not fluid and make the choice to socially transition.’’ Hirst wrote the book to help her young son describe his experience of being transgender.
“Only you know whether you are a boy or a girl,’’ says the Gender Fairy, who has a “non-binary gender identity’’. “Nobody can tell you. If you feel no one knows who you really are, you can tell a grown up you trust.’’
Greg Donnelly, a Labor Party member of the NSW Legislative Council, has accused Safe Schools of “gender bending’’ in the classroom. “We are talking about little boys and girls, who are in effect a captured audience, being presented with overt sexual and gender ideology that is being presented as a matter of fact,’’ he tells Inquirer. “Their parents, of course, are being kept in the dark.’’
Taxpayers are funding the program, which the Safe Schools Coalition devised based on advice from a “curriculum consultant” and a group of Melbourne teachers, without input from psychiatrists or pediatricians. Students’ participation in the program does not require parental consent because it is not deemed to be sex education.
Labor senator Penny Wong, who is gay, announced $8 million funding for Safe Schools over four years when she was minister for finance in 2013, to “help stop homophobia and create more inclusive school communities’’. Safe Schools Coalition national program director Sally Richardson tells Inquirer the federal Education Department approved the All of Us teaching manual, which has been ordered by 350 schools.
“We do all the staff professional development to introduce respectful language and understand the concepts around sexuality and gender,’’ Richardson says. The decision to target the teaching to the youngest high school students, she says, was made by education consultant Janice Atkin, a former Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority project officer who managed the development of the national health and physical education curriculum.
Safe Schools also worked with Melbourne teacher Chris Bush, who has a year’s experience as a high-school teacher, and “a group of other teachers’’ in Melbourne.
“We worked closely with the federal Department of Education and Training to ensure all the lesson plans and videos were appropriate for years 7 and 8,’’ Richardson says. “All of our resources are being fully funded by the Australian government.’’ Richardson says the role-playing lessons are about “putting themselves in other people’s shoes’’.
“It’s about encouraging students to have a better understanding and empathy, and to show that same-sex attracted people don’t fit into stereotypes,’’ she says. “It’s been a very popular activity.’’
The program does not require parental approval or even notification, Richardson says, because “this isn’t sex education. It really is talking about relationships between people; it doesn’t talk about sexual teaching and sexual health,’’ she adds. “The teacher knows their class best, and what’s right for them.’’
Child psychiatrists and pediatricians — those with expert medical knowledge of sexuality and gender identity issues — were not consulted, although Beyondblue, Headspace and Family Planning have endorsed the program, along with the Australian Education Union and the Australian Secondary Principals Association. “The resource is geared around discussions about relationships so we didn’t get medical input,’’ Richardson says.
The lead author of the All of Us guide is Margot Fink, a finalist for Young Australian of the Year for her work encouraging schools to create safer environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. A co-author is Marxist activist Roz Ward, who works for the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University.
Writing in Red Flag, the newspaper of Socialist Alternative, in 2014, Ward mocked the inclusion of “work studies’’ in the national curriculum for high school students. “The system teaches students to obey orders, pass tests and be grateful,’’ she wrote.
Addressing the Marxism 2015 conference in Melbourne last April, Ward railed against the “push to fit people into gender constructs that promote heterosexuality’’. “Programs like the Safe Schools Coalition are making some difference but we’re still a long way from liberation,’’ she said. “Marxism offers the hope and the strategy needed to create a world where human sexuality, gender and how we relate to our bodies can blossom in extraordinarily new and amazing ways that we can only try to imagine today.
“Alongside sexism, homophobia and transphobia both serve to break the spirits of ordinary people, to consume our thoughts, to make us accept the status quo and for us to keep living or aspiring to live, or feel like we should live, in small social units and families, where we must reproduce and take responsibility for those people in those units.’’
Kevin Donnelly, a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University who helped review the national curriculum for the Coalition government last year, is a fierce critic of the Safe Schools program. “It’s under the guise of an anti-bullying program but I’d argue it’s more about advocating the LGBTI agenda,’’ he tells Inquirer. “We all agree nobody should be bullied or victimised. But this is social engineering. Teachers are increasingly expected to take over from what families traditionally have done. Schools and teachers need to focus on the key disciplines, the basics, and that means more education and not as much social engineering.’’
The list of 490 schools using the program includes state, Catholic and independent primary and high schools, although the identity of 24 schools in Queensland is being kept secret. Queensland Teachers Union president Kevin Bates tells Inquirer the Australian Christian Lobby had been contacting principals, parents and Parents and Citizens Association groups “to attempt to harass them out of the program’’. “When a school is considering becoming a supporter of the program, parents and teachers and students get involved,’’ he says. “We have students with gender identity issues in our schools and it’s not something you can hide from.’’
Australian Christian Lobby spokeswoman Wendy Frances says the Safe Schools material “discriminates’’ against heterosexual kids. “This is bullying in reverse,’’ she says. “A lot of children are still pretty innocent about this stuff; there’s a lot in the program that is age-inappropriate. We don’t want kids having to think about sex all the time at school.’’
The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ head of child psychiatry, Nick Kowalenko, tells Inquirer parents ought to be consulted about the program’s use in school. “The kids referred to me who have got gender identity issues are often in early adolescence, from 12 to 16,’’ he says. “When I speak to them they tell me it was from early primary school that they felt different.’’ Kowalenko says the Safe Schools program might be “incredibly helpful’’ for such children, “but if you’re talking about every kid in the community, it might not be appropriate at 11”.
Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg is managing director of the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre, which produced the Growing Up Queer report in 2014 showing that two-thirds of young LGBTI students are bullied at school. He is critical of the Safe Schools strategy encouraging students to defy teachers who do not let them put up posters or access gay websites.
“The civil disobedience is not wise,’’ he tells Inquirer. “But I do think we need this type of curriculum material because there’s a need to decrease the rampant homophobia and discrimination against kids in schools. There are little kids who are born in the wrong bodies and that’s not a choice. They fear puberty; 30 per cent of them try to end their lives during adolescence. What the (ACL) is doing is incredibly un-Christian because they are not showing any compassion for a vulnerable group of young people.’’
By Natasha Bita